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Paper Trail: The
Religious Defense

Paper Trail: The
Religious Defense


In an excerpt from her new book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, author Candace Chellew-Hodge incorporates the wisdom of Xena: Warrior Princess to illustrate her theories as to how gay and lesbian people of faith can protect themselves from those who attack their views.

The hate mail began to arrive in my e-mail box soon after I founded the first online magazine for gay and lesbian Christians,, back in 1996. Those writing the e-mails had one message in common: God condemns homosexuals, and to be loved and accepted by God you must repent of your "sin" of homosexuality. It's been remarked that it's difficult to convey emotion in the body of an e-mail (which is why we have a whole lexicon of smileys and other emoticons), but the anger, hatred, and outright vitriol of those who sent me the e-mail was clear -- no emoticons were needed.

The deluge of condemning mail put me in a quandary. I was certain, even back then, that God loved me and accepted me as both a lesbian and a Christian -- but I had no idea how to defend my belief and no idea how to answer these e-mails. All I could do at that time was to respond with my own e-mails full of anger and defensiveness.

I decided that to answer these questions, I had to go back to school -- seminary, to be exact. I entered the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta in 1998, ready to learn how to fight those who would condemn me. In the end, I realized that while those who may have written hateful letters to me were spoiling for a fight, the best response I could give them was what 1 Peter 3:15-16 calls a "gentle and reverent" response. That verse counsels Christians to always be gentle and reverent when defending the hope that is within them -- even if the attack against them is anything but.

That realization led me to put together a workshop called "Spiritual Self-Defense for Gay and Lesbian Christians" that was well received at many LGBT-focused conferences around the country. My first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, is the culmination of all those years of helping LGBT people thrive spiritually even in the face of persecution and condemnation by other Christians. It provides a blueprint for anyone, gay or straight, who may find themselves in a minority position where they feel attacked or oppressed. I draw from many divergent sources, from the Bible to Xena: Warrior Princess, to equip LGBT Christians (as well as their allies) not just to face attacks, but to turn those attacks into opportunities for personal growth and dialogue with those we may consider our "enemies."

Chapter 4: Wisdom Before Weapons

"It's wisdom before weapons, Gabrielle. The moment you pick up a weapon, you become a target." --Xena, on TV's Xena: Warrior Princess, in the episode "Dreamworker"

When I first started receiving hate mail, it affected me physically. Who were these people to tell me that God hated me and would spit me out? Who were these people to judge my faith? Who were these people who thought I'd never heard of Leviticus or Romans or 1 Corinthians? Did they believe I'd read their e-mail and think, "Wow, I must have missed those passages. I'll take Whosoever down immediately!" The arrogance and sheer insolence of these people amazed me and put me into a tailspin.

I would respond with every ounce of my discomfort. I wrote scathing replies, sardonic replies, sarcastic replies, or just plain mean-spirited replies. I could really dish it out. I was right, they were wrong, end of discussion! I didn't care where they were coming from. I wanted them to know my view and to know that it was right!

Marianne Williamson, in A Return to Love, asks the question, "Do you prefer to be right or happy?" We all want to feel like what we believe is right, and when we're challenged, our natural response is to defend our beliefs -- often tooth and nail. But, as Williamson says, "God doesn't need us to police the universe." Instead of "shaking our finger" at those we believe are wrong, a better response, Williamson notes, is one of compassion and forgiveness. When we approach another person with gentleness and reverence, we do not put them on the defensive, but instead open a path to dialogue. As Williamson says, we must fight against our own ego that demands to be validated as "right."

I spent years as an angry left-winger before I realized that an angry generation can't bring peace. Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. As Gandhi said, "We must be the change." What the ego doesn't want us to see is that the guns we need to rid ourselves of first are the guns in our own heads.

Of course, our first impulse is to defend ourselves -- often forcefully -- when we've been attacked. We want the other person to understand our perspective, to hear our arguments. But most of our attackers have no interest in hearing it. They don't want a reasoned argument. They want to tell you their opinion -- which they'll claim is not their opinion, of course, but what God says -- and have no interest in hearing yours.

This is an important question for us to ponder, however: "Do you prefer to be right or happy?" Those who constantly argue with us have made their choice -- they prefer to be right. They will argue until they are exhausted. They will launch legislative drives to curb LGBT rights. They will work tirelessly in their churches to ensure that LGBT people are never ordained, accepted in leadership positions, or seated in the pews. This is what happens when we want to be right. Our lives are consumed with fighting what we hate. We constantly tie ourselves to things that make us miserable.

We must make a choice. Can we stop arguing, let go of our need to convince others that we are right, and learn to be happy instead? A friend of mine once counseled a couple experiencing trouble in their relationship. The man insisted he was right. He was so wrapped up in being right, he could not hear his wife's expressions of pain or need. My friend, frustrated after several attempts to help them, finally told the man, "You can be right, or you can be in relationship."

This is our choice. Do we want to be right -- to have our views validated by those who oppose us -- or do we want to seek deeper relationship with those who may be considered our enemies? Do we want to bridge the gap and find common ground, or do we simply want to be acknowledged as right by our opponents, knowing full well that many of them would rather die than give us an inch?

My oldest sister and I practice this principle of being happy instead of right. She disdains homosexuality and believes I am not living the life God would will for me. We understand each other's point of view, and we know that we cannot change each other's mind. I could spend all my time with her trying to convince her that I'm right and she's wrong -- but what a miserable time we'd have together. Instead, we've opted for relationship. We enjoy our time together. We love each other and want to spend time together. So we put aside our need to be right. We choose relationship.

This is not to say that we in the LGBT community must go back into the closet or keep our lives quiet. We must still work for equality in church and society. But we do need to try our best to find common ground with those we seek as dialogue partners. This is not easy, because we want desperately to be right. We often need our views validated by others, or else we question our conclusions. When we are bulletproof, however, we can let go of the need to be right. We can choose to be happy instead.

Xena's Defense Theory

If we truly want to see a change in our opponents, we first have to be, as Gandhi said, the change we wish to see. If we wish to see our opponents respond to us in a gentle and reverent manner, we must first respond to them in a gentle and reverent manner. If we seek relationship instead of being right, we must take the first steps toward relationship. We need to learn how to speak in a way that will be heard instead of our words causing barriers to go up and ears to close. We need to learn how to truly listen to our opponents and open our hearts to them.

We must resist the urge to draw our sharp weapons of sarcasm, anger, fear, or loathing when we're attacked. Xena was renowned in the television series for her fighting skills, but she was always reluctant to teach them to her gentle sidekick, Gabrielle, as the following scene illustrates:

Xena: "Don't confuse defending yourself with using a weapon. When you pull a sword, you have to be ready to kill. People are too quick to go for their swords. It should always be the last resort."

Gabrielle: "I don't want to learn to kill. I want to learn to survive."

Xena: "All right, the rules of survival. Number one: If you can run, run. Number two: If you can't run, surrender, then run. Number three: If you're outnumbered, let them fight each other while you run. Number four -- "

Gabrielle: "Wait -- more running?"

Xena: "No, four is where you talk your way out of it, and I know you can do that. It's wisdom before weapons, Gabrielle. The moment you pick up a weapon, you become a target."

Wisdom before weapons. Xena's defense theory is one where words take precedence, but as we well know, words are powerful and can be just as deadly as swords.

Our words can create healing or suffering. It's up to us to realize this power and begin to choose our words carefully, even in response to words meant to hurt us, put us down, or denigrate us. The words we say in reply must always be gentle and full of reverence.

But as Xena wisely pointed out, often "running away" -- simply removing ourselves from the situation -- may be the best thing we can do to defend ourselves. Never forget that we don't have to dignify our attackers with a response. Ever since I realized that the Delete key exists for a reason, I use it often when I receive odious e-mails. I never feel bad when I hit that key and refuse to be drawn into a fruitless debate with an enemy. Instead, I feel empowered because I know that my faith has again deflected another bullet. Running away -- refusing to engage in a potentially harmful situation -- is not a defeat; it is survival.

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Candace Chellew-Hodge